Past Matters

Where you come from matters.

This third installment of the Bread of Life discourse is all about origins — Jesus’ origins, that is. So, you have to add verses 35-40 back into the reading because when it comes to origins, verse 38 is key, “for I have come down from heaven” and is the reason for the complaining by the Jewish leaders in verse 41. Why does it matter where Jesus comes from? This question is the theological lens through which the exegetical details of this portion of chapter 6 come alive.

Of course, the premise and promise of Jesus’ origins have been front and center since the beginning of the Gospel, and in fact, where Jesus comes from is the primary claim of the very first clause, “In the beginning was the Word.” In John, Jesus’ origins are not traced back to Adam as in Luke, or Abraham as in Matthew, but to God, God’s very self, to before the world was created, in the beginning, with God.

Reinforcing the true origins of Jesus is all over the place in this portion of John 6. The reworking of the story of God’s provision in the wilderness is not only to illustrate that like God Jesus provides, but to affirm that like God, what Jesus provides is also who Jesus is and that like God, Jesus’ provision originates from the same place. The complaining in verse 41 is the same word in the Septuagint in Exodus 16, but what is the registered complaint? The Jewish leaders connect the dots between verses 32 and 40 and figure out just what Jesus is saying — that he is the bread from heaven. The question about Jesus’ ancestry in verse 42 is to make clear whose son Jesus is. Verse 46 directly recalls 1:18, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Jesus has seen the Father because he comes from the Father and he is God made flesh. The reason for the incarnation is for us now to see God, to experience God in the fullness of relationship that was assumed in God’s relationship with God’s people but could only be known to a certain level. Verse 49 is more about origins. Jesus uses the second person possessive pronoun, “your ancestors” not “our ancestors” thereby asking the same question of us — how are your origins cast?

What this story from the wilderness wanderings affords that another provision story might not is to reinforce where Jesus comes from. Just as the origin of the food and water for the Israelites was from heaven, from God, Jesus himself as true bread and living water comes from God — and more so, is God’s very presence. From heaven, however, is both where Jesus comes from and where he will return. As a result, this story has the function of reiterating the theological sequence on which the plot of the Fourth Gospel is premised: the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Jesus comes from the Father and will return to the Father.

In this portion of the Bread of Life discourse, Jesus says where you come from matters, but how you cast your origins matters more. Jesus is asking us, “where do you think you come from?” Of course, how this question gets answered depends on who is listening. For the Jewish leaders, their origins justify a limited imagination for the present activity of God in the Word made flesh. For the crowd, their origins are being recast before their very eyes and they have yet to recognize fully what this might mean. For the community of John’s Gospel, and for the disciples, they no longer have any origins. They have already been cast out (6:38) and have to reimagine new origins. Their origins are now located in the promise of Jesus’ origins. Their past is now recast as presence in Jesus’ love.

And for us listening today? Where you come from matters. Your origins are on what you draw to make sense of your present. Your origins might be for what you long as that which have determined significant aspects of your identity. Often our origins are idealized, immortalized — if we could only go back. At the same time, where you come from may be where you never want to return — you cannot and will not go back — never, ever. Where you come from might be that which you spend your present trying to correct or to make up for. To what extent have your origins become your present attempts to right mistakes, to recast perceived failure, to reinterpret what was truly beyond your control as something you could have repaired?

The whole point of bread from heaven, the focus of these verses in chapter 6 of John, is to make clear that Jesus as the Bread of Life is a claim not only on our present and our future but also on our past. “The past cannot be changed, forgotten, edited, or erased. It can only be accepted,” reads an anonymous quote. But in Jesus as the Bread of Life that comes down from heaven, our past is not changed, forgotten, edited, erased, or even accepted — it is recreated because we too are now children of God (John 1:12-13). The Bread of Life as the gift of life here and now and the promise of life in a resurrected and ascended future makes a statement about our past, not with the intent to expunge the past, rewrite its truth, or beg its forgiveness but to see it for what it was, to tell its truth, and to lean into the possibility that it can see a new truth about our own origins in light of our present and promised future.